Helen Garner's book: an attack on feminism


By Kath Gelber

The subject of Helen Garner's new book, The First Stone, is ostensibly a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University's Ormond College in 1992. Two young women who alleged sexual harassment by a college master sought redress, initially within the university's own grievance and counselling procedures. Unsatisfied with the result, they eventually went to the police. A much publicised court case resulted, and the accused lost his job.

Garner has manipulated some bare — in fact minimal — facts of the case into a cause c‚lŠbre. Although admitting that very few of the people involved in the case would actually talk to her — a major exception being the accused college master — she took it upon herself to set the record straight in 222 pages of vitriol against young women and young feminists.

Her accusations have drawn much acclaim. Four Corners devoted a program to her views. The establishment press has hardly been able to contain its joy. A feminist, a champion of the second wave, is castigating young women and feminism in phrases such as, "Has feminism come to this?".

What is the book about? Is it really a lone call for sanity from an older, wiser feminist feeling disturbed by the confused and confusing reality of gone-astray feminism today? This is what it claims to be.

Garner says she was appalled by the idea that these women had taken their case to court. In the process they ruined the reputation and career of "an agreeable-looking middle-aged man" with a "soft" face. She deplores the fact that they did not just "sort him out later", and asks, "What sort of people could these be?". The day she first read of the case in the Age, she wrote immediately to the man accused, saying "how upset" she was and that "it's heartbreaking for a feminist of nearly fifty like me, to see our ideals of so many years distorted into this ghastly punitiveness".


Garner's interpretation of the case as "ghastly punitiveness" apparently prompted her to mete out some punishment of her own. What she fails to acknowledge in her quest for vengeance is that the obbject of her retribution — feminism — is innocent.

At its core, The First Stone is an ideological assault on feminism. It feeds the anti-feminist backlash. It rests on and propagates a set of myths, distortions and half-truths that form the ideological justification for rolling back the gains of feminism: gains such as sexual harassment policy, equal opportunity legislation and affirmative action.

The period we live in is often referred to as "the backlash" after US feminist author Susan Faludi's book of the same name put the term in the public domain in 1992. Then, as now, it provided a convenient shorthand term with which to describe the lag in militant feminism post-second wave, and the attacks on programs and policies designed to assist women in achieving equality, which had been the cornerstones of the gains of that period.

In the backlash ideology, there is no need for equal opportunity programs or affirmative action because women have made it now. Girls are doing better than boys in schools, women have access to any job they want.

The facts tell the opposite story: women still do not have reproductive rights; economic rationalism ensures women's services are cut; the introduction of user pays has restricted access to higher education for women; Australia still has one of the most gender-segregated work forces among OECD countries; and enterprise bargaining and the destruction of the award system mean women's wages are falling even further behind men's instead of catching up.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Australian Women's Year Book 1994, in 1993 nearly 50% of men had post-school qualifications, compared with approximately 38% of women. In 1994, over 40% of women were employed part time, compared with approximately 10% of men.

In 1993 total earnings of female plant and machine operators and drivers were 66% of men's, and even women para-professionals still earned only 91% of men's earnings. Between 1988 and 1993 women's earnings decreased in relation to men's in the electricity, gas and water, construction, transport and storage, recreation and personal services industries. In 1991 women made up over 60% of legal clerks, just over 25% of lawyers and only 15% of judges.


Yet the myths that try to convince us we're imagining all this continue. The First Stone reiterates them.

Backlash myth no. 1: Feminism has turned women into victims. We should be able to handle out of turn remarks or behaviour on our own. Instead, we have all become powerless victims who overreact at the slightest provocation.

This is not a new idea. Kate Roiphe has dealt with similar claims in her books about life on campus in the US. Camille Paglia is renowned for denouncing feminism as creating a world full of "victims".

There is much debate within the women's movement about the cause of violence against women, and by logical extension, the issue of whether all men are potential, if not actual, perpetrators of violence.

This is a debate within feminism that is not acknowledged in the book. Instead, Garner declares all young feminists to hold a particular perspective on the issue. She calls "modern feminism", "priggish, disingenuous [and] unforgiving". She says feminism has "mutated into ... these cold-faced punitive girls".

Garner caricatures young feminists and feminism and portrays them as having a "constant stress on passivity and weakness". This then makes it a simple procedure to write off their ideas and declare their actions inappropriate. This also omits to mention one of the greatest gains of feminism — the empowerment of women through consciousness-raising, involvement in activity in defence of women's rights and the fostering of a greater understanding and solidarity between women. These things have made women stronger, not weaker.

This logic has its own offshoots. If feminism has made us all into victims, we must once upon a time have been better off — without it. This is backlash myth no. 2, a romanticisation of life for women without EEO policies, without sexual harassment procedures.

Garner refers wistfully to a 1959 British movie called Expresso Bongo in which the central character is a "pretty young blond ... who works in a club as a stripper" with an attitude to match, who is able to fend off the drunken men who harass her. "How refreshing her bluntness was, her irritable wit, her stable sense of her self, of the precise whereabouts of her boundaries."

This is one of the most glaringly obvious incidents of perceiving reality for women through rose-coloured lenses that Garner uses to support her argument.

Politics, not age

Garner also propagates yet another myth of the backlash — that differences over where feminism is going are a generational issue rather than a political debate. Garner refers to herself as the "political mother" of this younger generation. A woman in her 40s is referred to, sarcastically, as "almost our scrap-heap generation" in an aside at young feminists who reject Garner's own cynicism and change of attitude.

Later, she is even more categorical. This isn't a "dialogue between generations", she argues against one of her contemporaries, "it's a fucking war".

This is a crude distortion of real differences over tactics and strategy in the women's movement, which deserve to be dealt with on their own terms, not obscured behind claims of a generation gap. There are contemporaries of Garner and others of her generation such as Anne Summers who are openly critical of the road their sisters have taken. Although Garner and the establishment media assume that if you're over 40 you will support her and if you're younger you will support the young women involved in the case, reality does not bear this out. There are older feminists who disagree — politically — with the arguments put forward by Garner, just as there are young women who are yet to be won over to feminist ideas.

The First Stone is much less about a sexual harassment case than it is an argument against feminism. It caricatures feminism and then shoots it down in flames. Garner has sought retribution on the wrong subject.

Feminism is an ongoing movement, which reflects the full array of political outlooks and strategic perspectives that form our broader political landscape. To caricature feminism is to discredit feminism and its gains. In a period of political backlash it is important to do the opposite: to support feminism and the gains it has achieved, while at the same time remaining open to constructive discussion about where to go from here. Crucial to this process is rejecting the cynics' analysis of what feminism stands for. Feminism, unlike Garner herself, has not sold out.